The 'civil war' trap in Syria

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently depicted the conflict in Syria as "civil war." Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton added that there was "every possibility" of civil war breaking out in Syria. Both of these portrayals of the conflict were meant to ratchet up pressure on the international community to prevent further violence. But in fact, describing a conflict as a civil war achieves exactly the opposite effect. It is not a call to arms; it is a call to inaction.

Take the intervention in Libya last year, which was ostensibly greenlighted to avoid a bloodbath in Benghazi. The term "civil war" wasn't much used, if at all. As the Economist correctly noted: "[T]he fact Libya is in the midst of a civil war is considered to be something one would mention only if one opposed intervening in it."

Just as labeling a massacre as a genocide is meant to compel outsiders to intervene, calling a conflict a civil war increasingly does the opposite, absolving the outside world of the responsibility of intervening. The term conjures up a protracted conflict under anarchic conditions in which the preferable action is to stand on the sidelines and let the war play itself out. It also invokes archaic notions of sovereignty: What happens within state borders is sacrosanct. That reaction is akin to what former Secretary of State James A. Baker III famously said of the Balkans in the 1990s: "We don't have a dog in that fight."

Civil wars have always been a source of semantic confusion, but most scholars label them as internal conflicts that incur at least 1,000 casualties. On that score and others, Syria does seem to be heading toward civil war. A handful of soldiers and politicians have defected to the opposition, militias such as the Free Syrian Army have been formed and security forces are under attack. Yet the violence still appears to be mostly one-sided, and the rebels control little territory.

In Washington, too often terminology becomes politicized and words are tossed around without regard to context or consequence. During the Iraq war, the Bush administration refused to describe sectarian violence there as a civil war. Those against the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan warn that the situation there will turn into a civil war if American forces leave. They use the term as an ultimatum: Continue a failed U.S. policy or else. But it is also employed to back a non-interventionist strategy: When former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. told ABC News that he favored pulling out of Afghanistan, he admitted this might lead to a security vacuum and civil war but added, "I'm not sure there's a whole lot we can do about that."

A civil war is often held up by outside observers as a worst-case scenario for political violence, a point of no return for belligerents that may spread beyond a state's borders. In West Africa, in fact, civil wars have typically engulfed entire regions, with peacekeepers still reluctant to intervene. But most civil wars do eventually end, usually because one side has emerged victorious after mass casualties and human rights violations:Sri Lanka'sbloody decades-long conflict provides a cautionary tale.

In the case of Syria, support within the country for international intervention, beyond Arab League inspections or economic sanctions, has only grown. There have been calls for more arms transfers, as well as establishing a "no-kill" humanitarian corridor. Syria's diaspora communities have also grown more vocal and involved. "I'm actually disappointed that the U.N. came out and [called it a civil war]," Muna Jondy of the Syrian American Council in Michigan told reporters. "This is not a civil war. This is a government killing its own people. It's going to make the rest of the world slower and less inclined to act."

So should we stop labeling conflicts as civil wars? Unfortunately, these types of internal conflicts will not go away by banishing a term. A more effective approach calls for greater prevention efforts early on. As former Secretary of DefenseRobert M. Gateswrote in a 2009 article for Foreign Affairs: "[The] U.S. strategy is to employ indirect approaches ... to prevent festering problems from turning into crises that require costly and controversial direct military intervention."

The nomenclature of armed conflict matters. If we do not know how to properly classify a conflict, chances are we will not know how or whether to intervene. Civil wars are a fact of international life. Their presence cannot be met with indifference. Inaction also creates perverse incentives: Regimes like Syria's that manage to heighten the violence beyond a certain threshold will be unjustly rewarded with the stamp of civil war and given a get-out-of-intervention-free card by the international community. Conversely, rebel armies that decide to take up arms will be unfairly punished the more successfully they challenge the state.

That is not to say that an outside intervention is a wise policy in Syria, given the obvious obstacles. But in today's policy parlance, the civil war tag has become an international seal of inaction, raising the bar for any kind of action, military or otherwise. And that is problematic for future peace efforts.

By Lionel Beehner, a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a member of the Atlantic Council's Young Atlanticist Working Group.

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